How The Justice Department Has Handled Other Police Consent Decrees

The Extended Story


The investigation of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) into Chicago police patterns and practices that was announced in December in response to the police murder of Laquan McDonald is anticipated to last about 18 months. 

The federal investigation – which places the Chicago Police Department in the company of police forces in other cities such as Cleveland; Ferguson, Missouri; and Albuquerque, New Mexico – is necessary, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, because failing to hold police accountable for misconduct creates “profound consequences” for communities. 

“When suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest,” Lynch said upon announcement of the investigation.  She added that the investigation will not home in on individuals, but will aim to “improve systems.” 

To get an idea of how the Dept. of Justice works in these scenarios, the Defender looked at DOJ’s handling of recent Cleveland, Ohio and Seattle, Washington consent decrees it entered into.

Cleveland, Ohio

On Tuesday May 26, 2015 the City of Cleveland and the DOJ released a 105-page agreement addressing concerns about Cleveland’s Division of Police (CDP) use-of-force policies and practices.

The agreement followed a two-year DOJ investigation to determine whether the CDP engaged in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force. 

Investigators found systemic patterns of use of force, insufficient accountability mechanisms, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate community engagement by Cleveland’s police department.

The May 26, 2015 consent decree mandated sweeping changes in training for recruits and seasoned officers developing programs to identify and support troubled officers, updating technology and data management practices, and an independent monitor to ensure that the goals of the decree are met.

But this is the second time federal officials have pushed for reforms in the department, so the agreement with Cleveland, a city with a documented history of overly aggressive policing, raises questions about how effective federal intervention is and what’s needed to impose lasting reforms.

Over the past 20 years or so, Cleveland’s police department is one of only five law enforcement agencies that have had two separate federal investigations. 

In late 1999, the Justice Department first began investigating the department’s use-of-force policies and Cleveland entered into a consent decree to resolve those issues in 2004. It entered into a year-long memorandum of agreement narrowly focused on officers’ use of force – deadly force in particular.

But Cleveland policing actually got worse, due to one major mistake. There was no federally mandated oversight prescribed as part of the 2004 consent decree. In 2004, the CDP was left to monitor its own progress, according to a report issued by the DOJ.

The report, published on December 4, 2014, by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, chronicles Cleveland’s Division of Police’s troubling history as it struggles its way into transparency and accountability. The report, addressed to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson opens up with blatant assertions by the DOJ:

“We have reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies and practices – including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community – contribute to the use of unreasonable force.”

As reported by, under an agreed upon first-year plan, the police department is “required to rewrite its mission statement,” and “required to rewrite the use-of-force policy and have every officer trained.” 

Matthew Barge, the federal monitor appointed to oversee the consent decree, so informed U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., who happens to be Black. The report also mentions the failures of the last consent decree back in 2004 with the DOJ and the reasons behind the failures:

“In 2002, we provided initial observations regarding CDP’s use of force and accountability systems and in 2004, we recommended that the Division make changes to address some of the deficiencies we identified. CDP entered into an agreement with us, but that agreement was not enforced by a court and did not involve an independent monitor to assess its implementation. The agreement did require CDP to make a variety of changes, including revising its use of force policy and establishing new procedures for reviewing officer-involved shootings.”

The 2004 agreement wasn’t meant to bring structural change. It imposed no federal monitor to hold the department accountable, and there was little community involvement. 

Cleveland was released from the DOJ’s consent in March 2005.  But before the end of that year, police were involved in four more fatal shootings, including the death of a 15-year-old boy. 

If federal monitoring had been included and real changes made in the Cleveland police department, the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in that city in 2014 may possibly have been prevented

Seattle, Washington

On July 27, 2012, the DOJ and the City of Seattle reached a comprehensive settlement agreement to ensure that police services are delivered in a manner that fully complies with the Constitution and laws of the United States, effectively ensuring public and officer safety, and promoting public confidence in the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and its officers.

Following a nine month investigation of the SPD in December 2011, DOJ found a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The investigation also raised serious concerns that some police practices related to pedestrian encounters with police could result in discriminatory policing.

The highlights of the Seattle investigation were that officers regularly used an unwarranted amount of force; didn’t always report it when they did; lacked a substantive accountability system to investigate uses of force, and lacked proper training.

At the outset, the DOJ’s report to Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn, dated December 16, 2011, laid the blame partially on the fact that one-third of Seattle’s police force was “less experienced” – three years or less on the force – and soon to be over 50 percent inexperienced, once retirees were replaced.

This fact, coupled with structural deficiencies in leadership, training, and supervision, culminated in a climate of abuse within the SPD, according to the DOJ.

The report said, “A pattern of excessive force exists as a result of a subset of officers who use force improperly, and is caused by a number of systemic deficiencies that exist in spite of SPD’s recent reform efforts.”

Some of the deficiencies highlighted were:

•  20 percent of excessive police force was deemed unconstitutional. 

• 57 percent of baton usage by police was considered unnecessary or excessive. 

• 61 percent of cases reviewed regarding multiple officers showed excessive force against a   single person.

As part of its 2012 consent decree, the SPD adopted a new use of force policy. Seattle’s first female police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who took office on June 2014, responded to the federal monitor’s 2016 report recounting the progress the SPD has made.

She stated “Officers used force against individuals in crisis less than two percent of the time; all officers have received some level of crisis intervention training, and SPD has placed an emphasis on guiding those in crisis to social services rather than to jail.”

Chicago, Illinois

Atty. Tony Thedford of The Law Office of Tony Thedford, P.C., which specializes in civil rights violations said “I believe this is coming to Chicago.”

His office had contact with the DOJ recently to discuss cases his firm has handled. “The DOJ is actively meeting with stakeholders, civil rights attorneys, criminal attorneys on both sides and they’re piecing together their ongoing investigation,” Thedford said.

In particular, the DOJ inquired about the 2011 Calvin Cross case, which the city of Chicago just settled last summer with Thedford’s office for two million dollars.

In a much less sensationalized case that received very little media attention compared to Laquan McDonald, the three police officers involved accused 19-year-old Cross of running away while shooting at them, near 124th and Wallace. In turn, they fired a total of 45 bullets at him including bullets from an assault rifle.

A “throw down” gun was found about 1,500 feet away across the street from Cross’ body. The gun was ruled inoperable by Illinois State Police forensic analysis and contained no fingerprints; nor was there any gun powder residue on Cross’ hands, according to Atty. Thedford.

“The officers received zero discipline and one received commendations about a year later,” he said. “They were back on the streets within 48 hours, which is deplorable.” 

“I don’t understand how an employer would expect a person having gone through a traumatic event would be able to work in a dangerous environment using deadly force or having the ability to use deadly force, shortly after having used it,” Thedford stated.

According to a December 1, 2015, article in the New Yorker by acclaimed writer Alex Kotlowitz: “In the case of Calvin Cross, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) ruled two-and-a-half years after the incident, that ‘the use of deadly force by Officers Mohammed Ali, Macario Chavez, and Matilde Ocampo was in compliance with Chicago Police Department policy.’” The officers were not disciplined. IPRA declined to comment on the case.

When Calvin Cross was killed his girlfriend was pregnant with their child, and so when the city settled the lawsuit brought by his family it agreed to place the money in a trust fund for Calvin’s son. In June (2015), the City Council approved the settlement of two million dollars.

In response to questions about the case, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department e-mailed a tellingly direct response: “Testing of the weapon at issue showed that it had not been fired and, in fact, was inoperable. Also, no fingerprints were retrieved from the gun that could be traced to Mr. Cross. Those factors led to our decision to settle the case.” The case had been referred to the State’s Attorney’s office for review. No charges were ever filed against the officers involved.

A December 17, 2015, New York Times article titled Chicago Pays Millions but Punishes Few in Killings by Police states that “In Chicago, police have shot and killed more people in recent years than in any of the 10 largest cities in America. Yet officers are rarely disciplined.”

When asked about what reforms from the Laquan McDonald situation would immediately benefit his clients, Atty. Thedford said: “The fact that they’re pulling these (police officers) off the street for 30 days now (after an incident), I think is a start to fully investigate what happened. It’s real simple to me – if they really disciplined officers when they shoot someone and take them off the street, then the next officer would think twice.”

About Post Author


From the Web

Skip to content